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Dystopian satire in a brave new medium

Atwood embraces the digital format for the short story. Photo supplied

Margaret Atwood’s latest story I’m Starved For You—a 44-page short story, published electronically on Byliner.com—begins with the discovery of a love note. The note is punctuated by a purple lipstick kiss, the gaudy imprint of everything missing from Stan’s life.

Stan is a part of the machinery of Consilience, a rapidly expanding program in the  prison industrial complex where citizens escape the crumbling outside world to volunteer for rotating shifts as labourers, guards and inmates in exchange for “gainful employment, three wholesome meals a day, a lawn to tend…A Meaningful Life.”  It’s a world where Bing Crosby is allowed, but heavy metal is not, a pre-colour Pleasantville of middle class benefits that mute the spectrum of primal and spiritual colour.

This satirical setting might be the Harper government’s alarming prison expansion policy taken to its dystopian conclusion. It makes me wonder if Atwood has glimpsed the recent graph online illustrating how the $200,000 plus it costs taxpayers to keep an inmate locked up for two years could pay for a child’s primary through post-secondary education.

I’m Starved For You plays out like the dark punchline to a joke that disturbs more than entertains. There’s great humour in the dialectic between penal comfort and Dionysian destruction, and like the best speculative-fiction writers, Atwood allows the hubris of both to play out in her characters. Especially clever is the cheerful contradiction of Charmaine, Stan’s “perky, bland” housewife with “safe teeth” (like Orwell’s Julia, member of the Junior anti-sex league yet self-proclaimed “rebel from the waist down”), whose appearance might just front a creature of darker impulses. Atwood suggests that institutional repression and self-destructive desire are intertwined in a series of fatal reactions, sometimes contained inside the same skull.

Atwood’s brush can be thick, smearing the post-apocalyptic world outside Concilience as one “crawling with black mold…in a stench-filled trailer dumped in a nothingland where you’d spend the nights beating off feral dead-eyed teenagers armed with crowbars and broken bottles who were ready to murder you for a handful of cigarette butts.” Atwood wants to be anathema to the language of public relations, to religious, political or economic gloss; and, in weird ways throughout her career, she’s kept the voice of vital outsider. Now, her mid-life adoption of social media comes with the older, wiser perspective of a digital immigrant.

The story starts with a note, because in a binary age, real paper is dangerous, erotic. I think Atwood might view her story similarly—a shot in the arm to younger writers and a contribution to what, in an interview for Byliner.com, she calls “the short fiction revival that’s taking place online.” Since I don’t have an e-reader, I read it off my laptop screen, a decidedly non-sexy experience, but I won’t complain.

Atwood has been productive lately, writing against the clock—whether of her own mortality or of social collapse doesn’t matter. She has ensured that neither her work, nor the short story itself, become mere museum pieces.

Andrew Mills, Arts Editor
Andrew Mills, Arts Editor
Andrew Mills was Arts Editor of the Gazette for Volume 145.
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